Imagine a hostage situation. The captive’s family members are wracked with anxiety, desperate to come up with almost any solution that might bring their loved one out alive and in one piece. They are terrified at what the kidnapper might have in mind. He has made clear his loathing for both the hostage and his entire family. He has vowed to seek their “destruction”.
As always in such a crisis, there is contact between the two sides. At one point, a proposal surfaces that will keep the hostage alive for one more day. The kidnapper agrees because he has spotted a way in which those extra 24 hours might allow him to profit from his hostage. The family say yes because they think the additional day might just allow them to arrange a rescue. On the narrow matter of those 24 hours, there is agreement between the two sides. On this one issue, their interests coincide.
As it happens, the family’s plan does not work out. Their dreams of rescue come to nothing because the kidnapper turns out to be a ruthless, insatiable killer. In the end, they see their loved one — along with many other relatives — brutally murdered.
Now imagine that, many years later, the family is assailed by critics who say that the deal they struck with the kidnapper over that extra day proves that the two sides were involved in “real collaboration”. Indeed, it proves that the kidnapper was really “supporting” the captive’s family all along, that he was, in effect, an ally of their rescue plan.
You’d hope that most people would laugh such a view out of court. That they would see immediately its basic error: the failure to take account of the two sides’ utterly different intentions. That they would understand that the kidnapper and the family were worlds apart because, while one side sought the captive’s torment, the other sought his rescue.
Of course no analogy is exact, and many will spot the gaps in this one, but perhaps you can see the basic parallel. The claim by Ken Livingstone that Hitler was “supporting” Zionism — for which he has been suspended but not expelled from the Labour party — rests on the Ha’avara agreement reached in 1933 between the Zionist Federation of Germany and the Nazi authorities and, crucially, on a reading of that accord that chooses to ignore the polar opposite motives of the two sides.
For the Nazis, the pact was a way to get Jews out of Germany because, as Hitler had already said publicly, they wanted to be “rid of them.” For the Zionists, the pact was a way to get Jews into Palestine, where they hoped to build a national home where Jews might survive and thrive in safety. One side sought Jews’ eviction, the other sought Jews’ escape. One side wanted to torment Jews, the other to protect them.
This difference in intention is the heart of the matter. It’s the difference between a women’s refuge which urges an abused woman to leave her home and the abusive husband who pushes her out the door. They both want her out. But that does not make them allies or involved in “real collaboration”, any more than a hostage’s family become allies with a kidnapper when they try to negotiate a deal for their loved one’s freedom.
Even to have to argue about this is painful. To taunt Jews over a rescue effort, a survival strategy, that went horribly wrong is cruelty beyond measure. To pretend that those who yearned for Jewish death were, in fact, “supporting” a project to secure Jewish life is not just logically absurd. It also seeks to put Jews and their genocidal murderers on the same moral plane.
It locates Jews’ mortal wound, which is still weeping, and pokes and prods at it with sadistic glee.
And since motive matters, it’s worth noting the motive of those who push this twisted version of history. It is surely to deprive Zionism of what they fear might be its trump card: the notion that the Holocaust proves beyond doubt why Jews needed, and might need again, a place of safety. If they can reverse that logic, tainting Zionism by association with Nazism, they hope to erode forever the case for Israel’s existence.
It’s hard to know how to deal with this attack. Should we get into the arena with Livingstone and his supporters, trading footnotes and dates from the 1930s, even though such an exercise is futile against those who refuse to look at either context or intent? Or is the risk that, simply by debating it, we give this allegation of collusion the oxygen of publicity, thereby doing Livingstone’s work for him?
Had Labour expelled the former mayor, it would have declared that such bogus history, what a Guardian editorial rightly called “vindictive revisionism”, is unworthy of debate. But Labour did not do that. So we have to do it instead — defending our dead from the accusation that their killers were, in fact, their friends.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian